Alex Gil | Movers & Shakers 2020–Change Agents

As digital scholarship librarian at Columbia University Libraries and codirector of its collaborative digital space Studio@Butler, Alex Gil works with faculty, students, and colleagues to create digital interpretations of their work, including interactive maps, visualizations, editions, and online exhibitions.

 

Sidsel Bech-Petersen

CURRENT POSITION

Digital Scholarship Librarian,
Columbia University Libraries, New York 

DEGREE

PhD, English Language and Literature, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2012

FOLLOW

elotroalex.com; xpmethod.plaintext.in; studio.cul.columbia.edu

Photo by Gene Smirnov

Digital Humanity

As digital scholarship librarian at Columbia University Libraries and codirector of its collaborative digital space Studio@Butler, Alex Gil works with faculty, students, and colleagues to create digital interpretations of their work, including interactive maps, visualizations, editions, and online exhibitions.

I’m one of the librarians [who] provides a sense of our digital worlds to humanities scholars and librarians, always trying to land somewhere in between those who use technology naively and those who want to reject it completely," he says.

Gil works at the intersection of technology, humanities, and social justice. One project came about after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across a wide swath of the Caribbean in September 2017. He posted a call to action on Facebook: a three-hour Mapathon at Columbia’s Butler Library that would use satellite imagery and open source mapping software to map thousands of buildings across Puerto Rico. #prmapathon attracted the notice of mostly library professionals at 25 universities, who staged their own events. In the end, they contributed to a collective map of the island that included more than 200,000 buildings and nearly 4,500 miles of road.

"I think we were able to rebuild the whole map of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria," Gil says. "On the ground we were getting reports of the Red Cross printing the digital maps on large pieces of paper that aid workers could use in the mostly disconnected countryside."

From this experience, the Mapathon team developed a toolkit that others can use.

Another major project is Torn Apart/Separados, created in response to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family separation policy at the U.S. border. In its first volume, Gil and his collaborators created an interactive map locating detention centers, ICE facilities, and border crossings where arrests were taking place. Volume 2 documents ICE funding to congressional districts across the country—and where that money eventually winds up.

Gil’s work on Torn Apart/Separados "is part of a larger idea about mobilizing interdisciplinary communities to bring their gifts together," says Bethany Nowviskie, dean of libraries at James Madison University’s Carrier Library.

Nominator Roopika Rasim, a faculty fellow in digital library initiatives at Salem State University, says, "As Gil’s astounding body of work demonstrates, he is transforming what it means to be a librarian and inspiring colleagues to do the same."

Recently, Gil helped launch Covid Maker Response, a quickly organized collaboration with industrial design company Tangible Creative and 3-D printing company MakerBot, which at press time was printing and distributing thousands of face shields for doctors and nurses dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in the New York tri-state area. 

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